Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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What a week

What a week that was.

Momentous change in Egypt, people power in action – again. The process that Ghandi helped start in India in the 1920 to 40s, that continued in the U.S. Deep South in the 1950s and 60s, continues today. And, it seems, enabled by ever faster, more democratic media to be, if anything accelerating. Despite the fears of a surveillance culture, centralised control and so forth, we seem (at least to this optimist) to be moving slowly in the right direction.

And on another front it was pleasing to read and hear Michael Porter, the eminent business guru, apparently joining the bandwagon of “democratic business” (WorldBlu?), “social business” (Yunus?), “sustainable business” (Anderson?) and “conscious capitalism” (Mackey?) – all things related to what we might call Conscious Business.

Pleasing as it demonstrates how mainstream these ideas are becoming.

But beyond that it is also interesting to ask “how are we to ensure that this innovation, once underway, continues?”. Many, many forces are able to kill off good ideas long before they really get established. Indeed, does entering the mainstream always represent a good thing?

Two very familiar phenomena are backlash and whitewash.

Examples of backlash are all too common – everyone is watching Egypt with concern, for example. Will the “uprising” cause a backlash from the “system” that initially appears to allow it?

Whitewash, while less violent, is perhaps more worrying. And it is equally common when change “threatens”: for example, we all recognise “greenwash” in relation to the response of mainstream business to environmental concerns. As this new type of conscious business emerges, as my friend and colleague Tom Nixon asks: “how many of, say, the FTSE 100 or the Fortune 500 have made it real?”

In response, I’d like to quote Hunter Lovins: “Hypocrisy is the first step to real change.” His point is that once somebody says something, then we can hold them to account for it.

So let’s listen to what Porter and the gurus have to say. Then see whether corporate America and corporate UK actually change. Or if they just pretend to.

And then, personally, we need to hold the line. Hold on to our own beliefs and hold others to account for what they are saying. To make sure their actions follow their words.

Of course, that requires awareness, self-knowledge and, most of all, personal strength and courage. It’s all too easy to want throw in the towel when faced by force and threat or by duplicity and pretence. Easier to give in – especially when the power of the “establishment” seems overwhelming.

For me, overcoming those desires is what Conscious Business is really about – not the big trends, not what happens in the world, not what others say and do – but what goes on inside me, the choices I make, and what I do as a result. Exploring that, in the context of business, is “the road less travelled”. But also the route to momentous change.

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Chicken and Egg

Climb that wall

Business is a complex system. If you don’t believe me, notice how many times the words “chicken and egg” come up in board room conversations.

Shall we hire some new people? Yes, when the sales are there. But hold on, we can’t make the sales until we have the people. Let’s wait until we have the sales – then let’s hire the people. But hold on…

If you’re not familiar with systems theory, it suggests that we like to imagine things happening largely in linear and cause/effect kinds of ways. But that a better model is that many things we encounter in life, including business, are the result of circular feedback loops and conditions as well as causes. This makes things more unpredictable, and sometimes, leads to that ‘chicken and egg’ state.

So how might we break out of these loops? How do we resolve the impasse of hiring versus selling?

Firstly, be conscious of them.

Study how systems operate. Learn from experience the subtlety of emergent properties – how unexpected results emerge as the result of changes we sometimes unwittingly make to systems. Picture them, draw them, get a feel for them. Some systems theory seems mathematical but I always think of it as more as an art than a science.

And secondly, throw your hat over the wall. There’s a story I remember from long ago about George Washington. Apparently when he was a youth he and his friends (for some reason I imagine them in the top hats and tails) used to wander around the gardens near his home, looking to steal apples, cut down trees and generally make mischief.

Sometimes they’d come up to a wall. A really high, unclimbable, dangerous-looking wall.

That’s kind of ‘chicken and egg’ isn’t it? In front of it you’re stuck. You can’t resolve the impasse – you can’t go forward.

So what happened? Well, one of them would take off his hat and throw it over the wall. That did it.

You see then they were committed – they had to retrieve the hat, so that meant they had to climb the wall. They had to go forward. And they did.

By the way I have read several introductions to systems theory but by far the best in my opinion is the late Donella Meadows book: “Thinking in Systems“.


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Let it be

In my working life I quite often hear people make a distinction between life-style and ‘growth’ businesses.

‘Growth’, at least from the entrepreneur’s point of view, really means exit.

The idea is to build fast and create a lot of value in the company – in the eyes of prospective purchasers – so that the business can be sold.

Naturally, this also creates a lot of uncertainty for employees, and other stakeholders. And often it creates a lot of uncertainty for the entrepreneur.

Maybe they sell. But then they have to endure an earn-out, and disrupted relationships with all those around them. And at the end – well, often they’re back at the beginning, needing to find the next opportunity to express whatever they feel the need to express.

So-called life-style businesses on the other hand provide the owners with a steady income over many years, provide steady employment and can lead to strong, resilient relationships with staff, customers and investors.

I guess this distinction can be a useful way of getting someone to think about their values: about what is important to them.

I nearly said goals, but goals as opposed to values are perhaps part of the problem.

“Growth” businesses are all about long-term goals. They’re about imagining a particular future (e.g. making a lot of money; lying on a beach) and working single-mindedly towards that goal. They’re sometimes about control: making sure that the actual future matches that imagined future.

Short-term goals can be useful, especially as a measurement tool. But long-term goals, don’t make as much sense, as I don’t think we can control our lives. Whatever we plan, something else will usually happen. We plan to lie on a beach and end up starting another business.

Ever so often, our lives evolve outside of our conscious control and something unexpected happens. Particularly over time, few of us can predict the detail of what will happen to us.

Of course, being the kind of creatures we are, we do make sense of it – after the event. We’re excellent at dreaming up good explanations. So we can very easily fool ourselves into thinking we are in control.

But if it’s an illusion, and we can’t control the future, what should we do? Well, I’d say relax and let the future come. It will.

And if that doesn’t satisfy the need to control the external world, what about transferring that need to your internal world?

Why not start with yourself? Try and understand yourself first, and if you wish, make a choice to be different, to be more conscious and self-aware.

Make a choice to communicate better/differently. Make a choice to build better relationships, ones that last and give you something that no amount of money can.

Make a choice to build a team around you that works in a very special way – a team that is supportive, creative, fun and challenging. And one that gets things done.

Make a choice to learn new business skills – and to learn about the world outside and explore what is really out there.

Do those things and let the rest happen. Life-style or growth. Whatever will be, will be.


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The need to please

I have a strong need for acceptance.

Whenever I have done personality tests I have always been grateful for the kind psychologist’s desire to cast the most positive light on this aspect of my personality. Words like “introverted”, “extremely sensitive” and “would enjoy working one-on-one with others” could, of course, be written in a less positive way: that I fear rejection and have a deep-rooted need to please others.

But hold on. Rejection is something we all suffer from, isn’t it? And haven’t I heard it said that the sales person’s greatest skill is overcoming rejection? That confuses me a little because sales people always seem to me to be so focussed on their relationships – perhaps paradoxically they also have a very high need for acceptance, but show it differently from me?

My personally preferred route would be to avoid human contact a lot of the time, and avoid rejection at all costs.

But, in business, that isn’t always possible. And over the course of my working life I have probably done quite a lot of selling. Several things have made it possible for me.

Firstly, major bits of reframing. I see selling not as the activity of using my charm and personality to win someone over to my point of view. Rather I have learnt to see it as a qualification exercise: one where I simply ask questions to find out if this person desires whatever I have to sell.

I see selling as helping. After all that is how I sometimes experience being sold to. If I need something and a helpful salesperson gently guides me to the product I want, in the right size and the right colour; and gently removes my fears – about what I’ll do if I change my mind later, for example – I am a happy customer.

And I have learnt to see the word “no“, or indeed any other word which signifies the conversation is not heading in my chosen direction, with great curiosity. “What on earth do they mean by that?”, I ask myself. “What are you really trying to say?”. I have built my curiosity muscle – and if I use it often the conversation may take another, sometimes quite unexpected turn.

Essential to all of these is reducing the emotional burden behind the thoughts. I am a fan of cognitive behavioural therapy and actually enjoy the process of trying to reframe my thinking around the harder areas of my life. But I know that if there is deep-seated emotion still sitting around in me while I try to see the world differently, reframing will have only limited success.

Awareness is, for me, the most powerful way to lessen that emotional burden. Gradually, over time, inch-by-inch I think I am becoming stronger, and more able to deal with my need for acceptance; and this seems well correlated with my growing awareness of it.

And finally to action: Testing my beliefs to destruction seems to give me the ultimate proof I need to make real progress. Each time I find myself in a sales situation, and I practice “helping”, I practice asking those questions, and I practice just sitting with those difficult feelings, I seem to get just a little bit stronger.

I break my old habits and I forge new, more appropriate ones. That’s how it seems to go for me. What about you?


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Business for personal growth?

I said in my last post that business was a powerful means to develop and grow people. I have been mulling this a lot lately, and have been wondering what it would mean if that was the entire purpose of business?

I can certainly see my own experience in that way. Working in business has brought me more challenges than pretty much anything else in my life. Firstly, the challenge of making a living. Secondly, learning to interact with all sorts of different types of people. Thirdly, doing all sorts of things I never would have imagined myself capable of.

Maybe that shows what a sheltered life I have led; but it truly has been challenging. Even balancing the demands of work with the rest of my life has stretched me physically, mentally and emotionally.

And yet at the same time it’s been a very safe place to learn. Scary at times, yes, but ultimately there has been little threat to life and limb.

Along the way I have also come to very much admire the people who run small and medium-sized businesses. It seems to me that they take more real risks than those in big business. In a well-salaried, very senior position in a large corporation, yes, you can learn a lot. And yes, you can lose your job. But you are unlikely to lose your house, or your personal reputation. You’re just too well cushioned by salary, savings and a network that protects its own.

Small business owners by contrast sometimes do lose everything, including their reputations with friends and family, and have to start again. There are few golden parachutes in the small business world.

But back to the purpose of business. I know what I am suggesting is not for everybody. Some people do simply want to make money out of business. Others want to do something really, really worthwhile. But for others, including myself, I think the goal is actually personal development and growth.

That may seem rather selfish. But I guess life ultimately belongs to each and every one of us. And we each have a choice to make, between what psychologists call hedonic and eudonic goals.

With the former we choose to make pleasure and joy our aim; and we avoid pain.

I understand the latter to be more about achieving a sense of fulfilment: a life well led, with real purpose and meaning, good relationships, good self-esteem and feelings of competence and self-control.

If this is your life goal, then why not make small business your training ground?

It will stretch you. You will need to learn new skills. You’ll need to become a specialist and a generalist – good enough at all things to be able to tell if you are wasting your own time and money.

You’ll need to be an expert in human relations. Money won’t always pave your way. So you’ll need to develop and rely on much more human strengths: passion, persistence, and the ability to persevere when others would give up.

You’ll need to learn new ways to lead – to help others discover their purpose and turn it into reality – often without recourse to coercive power.

And most of all it will force you to be really honest, to really be yourself; it’s hard to survive and thrive in small business if you adopt and hide behind a role. When things get tough you simply have to reveal yourself if you want to gain and build trust. Only honesty and trust will get you through the difficult times, and help you create something truly sustainable.

From this honesty and self-inspection you’ll also gain self-knowledge and self-esteem, and ultimately a sense of self-control and personal power.

Surely that’s worth shooting for?


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Doing Business Consciously

Conscious business. Now there’s a term to conjure with.

We’ve had conscious consumerism. So why not something for the other side of the producer/consumer coin: conscious business?

What is it?

What does it mean exactly? Lots of things depending on where you sit.

If you read the wikipedia definition some people are talking about conscious business as if it is a type of business. That is, some businesses are conscious and others aren’t. Just like some businesses are profitable and others aren’t. Or good or bad.

I prefer a more personal approach. I think of it in terms of whether someone who is engaged in business is conscious or not.

Doing business (or anything) consciously is about being aware of what is happening as you do it. Being aware of your thoughts, feelings, needs and motivations. And being aware of what is happening around you too – in other people, and in the world.

(This isn’t “flow“. In flow, as I understand it, consciousness comes and goes. You can be so deeply in flow, so focussed on the task hand that you lose consciousness of what is happening around you.)

What’s it got to do with business?

I am told that many people operate from day-to-day with limited consciousness. And popular business role models seem to encourage this. “Successful” business people are portrayed in the media as single-minded – focussed on only one thing (often money) at the expense of other things (or people).

Intellectual prowess is also much celebrated – at the expense of emotional awareness, for example, although this is starting to change. And the goal is often seen to be more important that the process of achieving it.

For me the process we go through is all important. After all there can be joy, pleasure and learning in the process, as much or more than in the outcome.

Immanuel Kant wrote “Always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.” For me, people, and their development, are the purpose.

All we achieve in business is worth little if we destroy people along the way. Turn that around completely and suddenly business is a powerful means to develop and grow people. And to improve the world we live in. A real force for good.

Sure we need money – it’s fuel. But it’s not an end in itself.

Conscious or Conscience?

Is doing business consciously the same as operating with a conscience? It depends if you believe that people have a conscience.

If you do, then increasing your conciousness means you are likely to become more aware of your conscience.

That doesn’t mean you have to act on it, of course. That’s still your choice. Of course, you’ll be more conscious of that choice too. (No one said it was easy!).

How do we do business more consciously?

Sometimes we are more conscious than at other times. So the aim is to be more conscious more of the time. This means becoming more aware of what is happening to us internally and externally.

  • Internally: thoughts, beliefs, feelings, sensations, needs, desires, drives, motivations and so on.
  • Externally: other people, our interactions with them (relationships), our physical environment – near and far, physical objects, the results and changes we create, the big-picture and the small, local picture too.

How do we become more conscious?

  • By spending time reflecting on these things more ourselves, by inquiring internally, and with help from others, to get a clearer view of our patterns of thought, our feelings, our needs and so on.
  • By spending time discussing these things and trying to understand others’ perceptions and views too. Others can help us by giving feedback on what they see and hear – we can understand our own behaviour better and make guesses about what is going on for us internally.

To become more conscious we spend time on these activities; and we ensure we avoid the distractions that stop us seeing, listening and feeling clearly: other people’s noise (TV news?!), habits and addictions of many kinds, and our own fears.

Why bother?

It’s a personal view but my bet is that doing business more consciously will mean:

  • you’ll enjoy it more
  • you’ll build better, stronger relationships
  • you’ll get better results – in personal and in business terms
  • the business you own, run or work in will reduce the harm it does, and even increase its positive impact on the world.

What next?

We’ve set up a wiki here to gather material to support discussion and enquiry into doing business consciously. Please feel free to read more there, and please join in.